Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Christian Theology at the core of Economics

Christ expulses the money changers out of the temple
(1610) Cecco del Caravaggio
I've puzzled over what I see as contradictions in the belief systems of Catholicism and Libertarianism, pondering how one can maintain simultaneous allegiance to the teachings of Jesus and Ayn Rand, as in the case of Representative Paul Ryan or, more locally many of the conservative Catholic lawmakers and pundits here in Rhode Island. It would be too easy to dismiss those who piously attend church on Sundays yet advocate against the well being of the poor the other six days of the week as callous opportunists and liars (some are, but some are true believers, afflicted with what I have in the past mistakenly identified as cognitive dissonance.)

Recent reading, however, is beginning to convince me that religious belief is built into the very nature of Economics as a discipline and that classical Economics theory is so deeply permeated with religious ideas and concepts that it is more rightly thought of as theology than science.

David Graeber, in Debt, the First 5000 Years, gets at some of this when he writes, 
Recall here what [Adam] Smith was trying to do when he wrote The Wealth of Nations. Above all, the book was an attempt to establish the newfound discipline of economics as a science. This meant that not only did economics have its own peculiar domain of study- what we now call "the economy," though the idea that there even was something called an "economy" was very new in Smith's day- but that this economy operated according to laws of much the same sort as Sir Isaac Newton had so recently identified as governing the physical worlds. Newton had represented God as a cosmic watchmaker who had created the physical machinery of the universe in such a way that it would operate for the benefit of humans, and then let it run on its own. Smith was trying to make a similar, Newtonian argument. God- or Divine Providence, as he put it- had arranged matters in such a way that our pursuits of self-interest would nonetheless, given an unfettered market, be guided "as if by an invisible hand" to promote the general welfare. Smith's famous invisible hand was, as he says in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, the agent of Divine Providence. It was literally the hand of God.
For Adam Smith, introducing the Hand of God into his nascent science is no different from what Isaac Newton did in his Principia. Though a stunning genius capable of astounding insights, Newton was unable to explain every single detail of everything. At times, Newton resorted to the idea of God to fill in the cracks in his theories. In this way Newton was as much the last alchemist as the first scientist.

Newton's law of gravity enables you to calculate the force of attraction between any two objects. If you introduce a third object, then each one attracts the other two, and the orbits they trace become much harder to compute. Add another object, and another, and another, and soon you have the planets in our solar system. Earth and the Sun pull on each other, but Jupiter also pulls on Earth, Saturn pulls on Earth, Mars pulls on Earth, Jupiter pulls on Saturn, Saturn pulls on Mars, and on and on.

Newton feared that all this pulling would render the orbits in the solar system unstable. His equations indicated that the planets should long ago have either fallen into the Sun or flown the coop—leaving the Sun, in either case, devoid of planets. Yet the solar system, as well as the larger cosmos, appeared to be the very model of order and durability. So Newton, in his greatest work, the Principia, concludes that God must occasionally step in and make things right...
The idea might be expressed as follows: Just as humanity has no right or ability to reset the course of planetary orbits, so does humanity, through governments, lack the right or ability to reset the course of the economy. Planets do what planets do, and if things occasionally get a little bit out of whack, don't worry, God will step in and adjust things. Similarly, people simply need to do what they do and the economy will remain stable or, if it grows slightly out of whack, God will step in and adjust it.

This parallel breaks down when we realize that the motions of planetary bodies are guided by strict gravitational relationships. People are not as affected by gravity in regards to how we interact with each other. So what force compels us to maintain our proper "orbit" in the economy?

The answer, say most economists, is self-interest.

As long as we always act in our own self-interest, the economy will fairly divide its spoils. But why organize ourselves by self-interest? Why not cooperation, a much more Christian sounding ideal? Why is the natural system of the world dependent on our worst qualities, greed and avarice, even as the Church asks us to develop our best qualities, compassion and service?

I turn back to David Graeber, in Debt, the First 5000 Years:
The problem is that the origin of the concept [of self-interest] is not rational at all. Its roots are theological, and the theological assumptions underpinning it never really went away. “Self-Interest” is first attested to in the writings of Italian historian Francesco Guicciadini (who was, in fact, a friend of Machiavelli), around 1510, as a euphemism for St. Augustine’s concept of “self-love.” For Augustine, the “love of God” leads us to benevolence toward our fellows; self-love, in contrast, refers to the fact that, since the Fall of man, we are cursed by endless, insatiable desires for self-gratification- so much so that, if left to our on devices, we will necessarily fall into universal competition, even war…

…The very idea that human beings are motivated primarily by “self-interest,” then, was rooted in the profoundly Christian assumption that we are all incorrigible sinners; left to our own devices, we will not simply purse a certain level of comfort and happiness and then stop to enjoy it; we will never cash in the chips… let alone question why we need to buy the chips to begin with. And as Augustine already anticipated, infinite desires in a finite world would mean endless competition, which in turn is why, as Hobbes insisted, our only hope of social peace lies in contractual arrangements and strict enforcement by the apparatus of the state.
Today, a good number of us follow religious or ethical traditions that are free of doctrines extolling the corrupt nature of humanity. We are free to see people as complex beings capable of great evil, to be sure, but also capable of great goodness, and possessing a nature prone to community, sharing and cooperation. As a result, participation in an economy in which the rules are structured to reward the worst parts of our nature rather than our best fills us with a range of emotions from unease to anathema.

We see clearly just how false Adam Smith's contention that the Economy runs like a solar system really is. Instead, we can see the economy as a complex, evolutionary system within which our participation can take a variety of forms. Better still, we are beginning to see the Economy a system that can be improved upon or even replaced outright.

By removing god and theology from our economics we should no longer be bound by systems that seek to reward the criminalization of our natures. Instead, we are now free to create new systems of economics that reward what is best in us.


  1. Hey! Enjoyed this! Question: why's you pick the Cecco del Caravaggio painting for an illustration?

    1. I thought chasing money lenders from a temple might be an example of Christian economics.